Every unpleasant circumstance can be described with a tale by someone who overcame it. Happy endings taste sweeter when the protagonist turned lemons into lemonade.
Imagine you’re a visitor to Africa in the early 1900s.
You’ve never seen a lion, not even in a zoo. You haven’t personally witnessed their size, shape, color, or hunting ability. You’ve never seen a lion prowl, bask in the sun, or lope through dry grass on the savanna.
No throaty growl, no hunger in their eye, no muscle graces your personal memory. Yet you can imagine her.
You can imagine the ferocity with which she rips into her dinner, her intent focus as she licks her young cubs clean. You can visualize the straw-colored fur of the animal, and even the flick of its tail because you’ve read, seen, or heard accounts of lions. Maybe you saw a picture. Maybe, if you are lucky, you know more about lions than a mere, clinical understanding because you also heard a story…
The Rustling in the Bush…
Imagine your host lives in a quiet village. You arrive and spend your first night in his hut, enjoying food and conversation, including stories…stories about lions, rhinos, and famous hunters.
Lucky for you, you take it all in.
Next morning, you wake with the sun and head out to the river. You need water, so you’re up and moving, enjoying the morning light and the walk.
Suddenly, there’s a soft rustling in the bushes about 40 yards away. Hush. You stop. In fact, if you’d been listening too closely to your own thoughts or your own footsteps, you might have missed it. You strain to hear it again, like a gentle sound of something slightly adjusting itself. Could have been a breeze…but it’s not quite like the rustle of leaves in wind. And there is no wind.
Maybe it was a ground squirrel, or a bird hopping from one branch to another. No, this whisper of sound had weight behind it. You turn your head and freeze, unable to see the eyes that are intently focused on your next move.
If you had not heard the story last night about the swift villager who shot an arrow through the right eye of a lion last winter, you wouldn’t have a “next move.” You wouldn’t be wondering whether this lion was the half-blind legend, or it’s two-eyed sister. Instead, as adrenaline surged through your body, you’d be thinking in your last moments…”I am dinner.”
If you had not paid attention to the story, the circle of life would end for you; and continue to turn for the hungry beast in the bush.
Mutual tension builds as the lion sinks lower on her haunches, pressing its paws one after the other into the soft ground. The lion never takes her eyes off you, and emits a low rumbling sound from its throat, just as it springs toward you with terrible, quiet speed.
You are ready.
There is one way to escape your fate, only one — and only if you are lucky enough to be hunted by the one-eyed lion, and no other.
For this was the story your host told you last night.
You remember what he said, how you could thwart the attack and survive. Last night there was laughter and some sage head nodding, but this morning…that entertaining story saves your life.
Wired for Story
The brain needs stories. Humans depend on stories to survive. Lisa Cron tells how this survival trait is hardwired into early humans in her book Wired for Story. Without the ability to process a story, early man would not understand that the rustling in the bush meant danger. [from the book Recommend This! by Thibeault and Wadsorth… Both books are worth reading.]
The connections we have with others require the ability to sympathize and match our experiences to those of others. It’s a beautiful thing, really, the human brain.
In the lion example, your cognitive brain establishes the possibility of danger and equips you with a possible way of dealing with it — even if you’ve never personally experienced being stalked by a hungry predator.
In modern life, stories are still essential.
We tell stories to our customers, our friends, our kids, our parents, and our colleagues. We warn, delight, educate, shock, and comfort them with stories. When you want to prevent or encourage an action in others, tell a story. Allow your listener to imagine a similar outcome . Show how that outcome helps, prevents, soothes, or makes people better in some way.
Processing stories is one way humans survive. We listen because they entertain us. We listen because our brains require it. We remember them because stories help us make sense of the world.
We retell them because they alter the path of our lives and may do the same for our listeners.
And that’s why humans must continue to tell and retell stories to survive.
Lion photo, Flickr CC: Olivier B.